Trainer's Corner: Sizeup key to fighting interface fires

Sizeup key to fighting interface fires
December 06, 2007
Written by Ed Brouwer
edbrouwerThe U.S. forest service says a campfire caused the wildfire that burned more than 200 homes near Lake Tahoe in late June. Wildland-urban interface areas exist wherever residential, industrial, or agricultural structures are located within or adjacent to trees and other combustible vegetation. Wildfires that have the potential to involve buildings and wildland vegetation simultaneously are known as interface fires.

As in many other locations around the world, the threat of interface fires in Canada is increasing and so are the economic and social impacts. For example, in Canada in 1998, interface fires forced the evacuation of 18,000 residents and another 46,000 were placed on evacuation alert. Then, in 2003, there were three firefighter fatalities, 335 homes lost or damaged, 38,009 people evacuated and 148,695 hectares lost to fire in B.C. alone.

Wildland-urban interface fires present a unique set of challenges and obstacles. Large wildland-urban interface fires, by their size, location and risks, frequently require the co-ordinated efforts of fire fighting agencies with differing missions, training and equipment.

Wildland fire fighting
Wildland firefighters generally respond to forest fires with a mission to protect valuable natural resources that are usually found in remote areas with limited water supplies. There may be a delay in discovering and reporting fires in remote areas; consequently, these fires tend to be larger when firefighters arrive. Extreme fire behaviour conditions produce high fire spread rates and intensities that rapidly involve large areas.

Wildland firefighters are trained and equipped to clear the fuel around the outside of the fire perimeter so that the fire cannot continue to spread. A large fire's perimeter can extend for many miles.

Structural fire fighting
Structural firefighters are trained to attack fires at individual
buildings and protect adjoining buildings. These firefighters usually rely on water systems providing ready access to piped water for direct fire suppression. Fire crews are equipped and located within a community to provide a response time of mere minutes, so that a fire can be contained in one or a few rooms, with the rest of the structure and contents saved.

The fire suppression situation becomes complicated when the wildland vegetation mixes with people and their homes and other structures. When the wildland fire can ignite structures, the standard wildland and structural fire suppression procedures may not be effective, particularly under extreme conditions. Both wildland and structural firefighters must adjust in these situations. Wildland firefighters may be faced with protecting a neighborhood in the path of a large fire. Terms like thermal layer, flashover or rollover may not be understood by some of these firefighters. Then again, some structural firefighters may not understand terms like candeling, crown fire, 30/30 crossover or control line. A tanker is no longer an apparatus that brings water but rather a very expense air attack plane. Cross training is imperative if we are going to be succeseful in dealing with interface situations.

Take time to size up the situation
Because firefighters may be faced with fire behaviour conditions that were not part of their wildland or structural training, it is especially important to take time to size up the fire situation before committing to any action that could put a fire crew in danger. Emphasis should be placed on size-up factors of fuels, weather and topography. Take advantage of local information such as daily winds and history of previous fires and their behaviour. Sizeup should be ongoing.

Safety as a personal responsibility
All firefighters are responsible for their own safety and well being. Several areas are totally within the individual's control and particularly affected by individual decisions.

Physical fitness
Firefighting activities are strenuous and often require firefighters to work at near maximal heart rates for long periods. The increase in heart rate has been shown to begin with responding to the initial alarm and persist through the course of fire suppression activities.

A large volume of medical literature details the relationship between physical fitness and cardiac health. Regular exercise programs have a demonstrated record of reducing heart attacks. This is especially important to individuals who are over 40 years old and who may not live an active lifestyle until called on for fire suppression.

When firefighters make personal choices not to exercise they increase the risk of injury or illness under emergency conditions and may also put other nearby firefighters in danger.

Safe driving practices
Vehicle accidents are responsible for a high percentage of firefighter fatalities. Many of those kinds of deaths have been unrelated to fire behaviour at the time of the accident but rather occurred as a result of unsafe driving on the way to a fire due to an incorrect assumption of a need for haste. Undue haste is often detrimental to the firefighter. These kinds of decisions are entirely within the control of the firefighter driving the vehicle.

Volunteer firefighters have a much higher percentage of vehicle-related deaths. This may be due to a lack of training but it is the individual who makes a personal decision to operate a heavy piece of equipment without adequate training and experience. Instructors must remind firefighters of their personal responsibility for safe driving, not only for the driver's safety but for every firefighter riding in that apparatus. Do not overlook the danger of driving back to base after a long day on the fireline. Driver fatigue is a huge factor in MVI.

The size of many fires in the wildland-urban interface means that they may take days or weeks to be controlled and more days before complete extinguishment.

During extended fire attack, everyone must be especially conscious of the effects of fatigue. It has been well said: "Fighting fires in the interface is a lot like running a marathon, with an occasional sprint to save your life."

Your safety strategy should also recognize that you need to preserve your energy for the long haul. There may be periods of just waiting. During these down times, staying safe means knowing how to rest without losing focus. The one time that you get tired or confused could be the one time that you'll need to react quickly and intelligently in order to save yourself.

The firefighters' equipment should also be geared for extended operations. Sometimes municipal firefighters show up in full turnout gear for an interface fire. This equipment is ideal for fighting structural fires but it is cumbersome in the interface and has caused preventable heat stress and exhaustion injuries. Lightweight gear commonly used by wildland firefighters is better suited for interface conditions.

Until next time stay safe and remember to train your members like their lives depend on it.

Ed Brouwer is the Fire Chief/Training Officer for Canwest Fire and a member of the Osoyoos (B.C.) Fire Dept. The 18-year veteran fire fighter is also a Fire Warden with Ministry of Forests, a First Responder III instructor/evaluator, Local Assistant to the Fire Commissioner and a fire service motivational speaker and chaplain. E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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